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Mr Whippy, radio surround sound and rain: Drive-in cinema is a break from the norm


Clouds gather above the Drive-in Movies@RDS car park

Clouds gather above the Drive-in Movies@RDS car park

Clouds gather above the Drive-in Movies@RDS car park

July 20 is the sacred day on which Ireland's multiplexes are due to reopen, and even the likes of me, who's spent way too many mornings hunkered in half-empty cinemas sighing my way through bad films, has kind of missed them. How keen punters are going to be to file into darkened auditoria where a random sneeze could cause a stampede remains to be seen, but, meanwhile, we have the drive-ins.

Last weekend, Drive-in Movies@RDS opened in Dublin, offering three movie screenings a day on (we are reliably informed) the biggest LED screen in the country. Among the gems on offer this week, for instance, are Lady Bird, A Star Is Born, Back To The Future, Kung Fu Panda and Dirty Dancing. So last Sunday I decided to bring my seven-year-old boy, who was surprisingly compliant.

The film showing was The Secret Life Of Pets, a knockabout comedy Max has seen many times before, but he didn't seem to mind - these days, anything remotely different from the daily lockdown drudge constitutes a party.

It works like this: you motor in, having pre-booked your ticket online as you must, your phone is scanned and you're directed on to a sprawling Simmonscourt car park. People park in fanned semi-circles facing the mighty screen: I, being an entitled film critic, moaned politely to an attendant about our sideways-on spot, but to no avail, and it turned out to be okay anyway. The sound comes through your radio, so that when you walk between the cars mid-movie, all is eerie silence, the brightly lit cartoon characters on the screen mouthing nothings.

You're charged by the car (€29.99 for a four-seater, €33.99 for a seven-seater), and while, in ours, there was just the two of us, others were packed. In the car next to us, two small kids had been sent to sit in the front so they could see better, while their parents loitered in the back, playing with their phones, looking sullen, on the point perhaps of misbehaving.

This scene was replicated in most of the surrounding vehicles and, occasionally, a jarring beep would rend the summer air when a kid accidentally leaned on the horn.

Two Mr Whippy vans just ahead of us were doing brisk business, while attendants now and then delivered greasy-looking brown bags of fast food to hungry cars. There was even a guy going around with a battery charger - playing your radio with the engine off can be too much for older jalopies. These people seem to have thought of everything, except the weather.

About 20 minutes in, just as our hero dogs were about to get lost in the New York sewers, a drop of rain hit the windscreen. Soon it was pelting it down, and plaintive windscreen wipes punctuated our viewing - now you see them, now you don't.

It was all a far cry from the last drive-in cinema I attended in South Dakota.

Drive-ins, of course, are an American invention, and had their heyday in the 1950s, where they were hugely popular with dating teens for obvious reasons. By the mid-1990s, many had closed and those which remained were hanging on for dear life. I was in the Dakotas doing a story for a French magazine and one day we decided to check out the local drive-in. It was Friday night, they were showing The Usual Suspects.

We rumbled in and parked alongside dozens of other cars full of mating couples and rowdy groups drinking beer and smoking out the windows. This is nice, I thought. Back in those days, the sound came through huge speakers: with the windows open, you could hear an accompanying impromptu soundtrack of laughs and comments and ominous disagreements. Was anyone, I began to wonder, armed?

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The weather came to my rescue: thunder booms heralded an electric storm which passed loudly just to our west, accompanied by hammerings of rain that put paid to all the messing, but made the movie hard to follow.

Rain then, rain now at the RDS, hitting off the windscreens as a cute but vicious fluffy white rabbit drives a passenger bus down the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. The climax was coming, and Max and I decided to start the engine and beat the traffic. "Was that like being at the cinema?" I asked him as we left. "No." "Was it fun?" He thought for a moment, then told me: "It was better than nothing." Fair enough.

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